Q: I was taught by my English teachers over the years not to split infinitives, but now I see writers splitting them all the time. What gives? —Anonymous
Growing up, I also had many teachers who taught me not to split infinitives—just as they taught me not to start a sentence with a conjunction. But, as with the conjunction myth, there is actually no rule that says you can’t split infinitives. Let me explain. [Help spread the word — Tweet it!]
An infinitive is a verb form that generally involves two words, the first of which is usually “to”—to run, to write, to somersault, to tickle, etc. Splitting an infinitive means to sneak an adverb in between those two words: I’m going to quickly run to the store.
The most famous of all split infinitives comes from the Star Trek gang: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” (I wonder if they are able to split infinitives in Klingon, too?)
While you may find some grammar style guides that recommend against it (Garner’s Modern American Usage is one), you’ll be hard-pressed to find any that completely and wholeheartedly ban it. But does that mean you should split infinitives? Probably not.
So many people believe the myth (including some editors) that splitting an infinitive in your query letter or pitch may mar the first impression you’re making, even though you’re not actually breaking any rules. The cons of choosing to split infinitives (annoying some editors, being called out by your blog readers for “lazy” writing, etc.) usually outweigh the pros (proving that you know the real rule), so I recommend avoiding it when you can.
I know what you’re thinking: If this isn’t a rule, then why do so many teachers treat it as such? While I can’t get into every teacher’s head, I’m guessing they teach us not to split infinitives because, most of the time, sentences are stronger when infinitives are intact. It’s a teacher’s way of keeping us from bad writing habits.
But if you feel the need to boldly go where few teachers (and editors) have let you go before, you can do so knowing that you’re not breaking any rules. Just be prepared to quickly send them this article when they call you out.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.